Obama's universal preschool proposal: Game-changer or federal overreach?
President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he will push for universal preschool. Advocates say the plan could be transformational, but critics say it's too ambitious.
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“I haven’t seen a groundswell of public demand for federal involvement at this level,” says Mr. Whitehurst, who is also a former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the US Department of Education. “This comes largely from the policy world. People have been working on this agenda for over a decade and finally got the ears of the administration.”Skip to next paragraph
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Advocates, including Obama, say universal preschool is a good investment.
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said in his State of the Union speech.
He was referring to findings from an iconic 1960s preschool intervention program, the Perry Preschool Project, which followed children from at-risk homes from high-quality preschool programs into adulthood. This and other similar studies have found a host of benefits linked to high-quality preschool attendance.One by CAP suggests that, without high-quality early childhood intervention, an at-risk child is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teen parent, 50 percent more likely to be placed in special education, 60 percent more likely never to attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
These benefits provide a return on investment of anywhere between $4 and $17 for every $1 spent, says W. Steven Barnett, director of NIEER at Rutgers University.
Adds Ms. Doggett of Pew, “I don’t think there’s a better educational investment you can make that will return greater benefit than a quality pre-K program.”
But critics, including Whitehurst, say the evidence for universal preschool is scant. Pilot programs and related statistics focus on benefits to the most disadvantaged children attending intensive, high-quality preschool programs.
“My first reaction [to Obama’s proposal] was, ‘Gosh, this speech is really misleading in terms of evidence,’” says Whitehurst, who recently wrote a piece for Brookings critical of universal preschool. “The point of my piece is that generalizing from a 40-year-old multiyear program that cost $100,000 a kid to a typical state-funded program for 4-year-olds is a great big leap of faith,” he says, referring to the findings from the Perry Preschool Program cited by Obama.
“We currently don’t have compelling evidence that those programs, made universal, are going to generate positive returns,” he adds.
Whitehurst says such programs have the greatest impact among the most disadvantaged populations. “The more universal we go, the more we take money and spread it around, the more thin the resources are for any particular child in need, and the less the impact,” he says.
“Programs that are supposed to impact school readiness have the greatest effect for kids who are otherwise not ready – low-income or disadvantaged families,” he adds. “That’s where the investment needs to be, where the investment has the greatest promise of paying off.”
Mr. Barnett of NIEER says the government has already tried – and failed – with targeted programs.
“We’ve been doing Head Start for 50 years. How well is that working out?” he says. “That’s 50 years of proof that this is not the model we want.”
Yet Whitehurst says he’s not convinced that universal preschool is a good investment.
“The evidence is very weak that it will achieve anything like the outcomes anticipated,” he says. “I would rather see the administration increase resources for targeted programs and make them more coherent.”